An encounter over a missing cat led to one woman getting to know her lonely new neighbour. Sharing much in common, they grew to mean a great deal to each other. Most of all, Elle taught her an important lesson ... if there were more people like her, the w


Thy Neighbour’s Keeper, by Jan Halliwell.


Ramshackle and empty, the old house across the road was hidden behind an overgrown bottlebrus­h and high grass. For two long years it remained so; until one late summer evening when somebody moved in.

Not daring to peek, I could hear a woman’s voice thanking the person who’d helped her with the move. I wondered how she’d cope in the awful old place, which appeared so unloved. For the first week there was no sign of life, apart from the flicker of a verandah light as night closed in.

Only days later, I was out gardening and noticed a woman returning to the old house, dragging a canvas shopping trolley behind her.

Dressed in shabby clothing, her hair flew in the wind, her face a mask of sadness.

Life was swallowing her up, one step at a time. My heart thumped; I saw in her a mirror image of myself from long ago. Once you’ve fallen to the bottom, you recognise it in those who are riding that freefall.

Feeling cowardly, I put my head down and went about my weeding. I caught sight of her now and then. However, during her mechanical-like walks to pick up supplies, she never saw me wave; if she did, she was in no mood to acknowledg­e me.

Once I was just like her. I could tell this woman was in a dark place and she was all alone, no one seemed to be calling on her. One night there was a loud bash on my front door. It was my new neighbour.

Frantic, she asked if she could look around my yard for her old cat, who had run off.

She whimpered, “I noticed you have cats. I thought you might be able to help me.”

She was absolutely right! I ran inside and grabbed a powerful torch. Her wily old feline fled to another house. She warned me: “Don’t let him see you, he hides from strangers!”

I threw my torch to her. “You go, I’ll wait here.”

Shortly after, she came shuffling out, relief shining on her face as she held her ginger friend in a vice-like grip. After putting him inside, she handed me back the torch.

“Wow, he couldn’t hide from the light, that torch is a beauty.” She smiled, then gave me a bone-crushing hug.

No explanatio­n was needed to figure out how much she loved that old cat. I understood how she felt: I’d been there myself, many years back, when a little cat had been my only friend.

We hit it off straight away, despite me being a whole 20 years older than her. We actually had much in common, it was scary: a mutual love of animals, books, history, politics, art and the Rolling Stones.

We both rode horses in our younger years and had worked as carers. It took her a while before she invited me over to her place. When she did, I found out why she was so upset after moving into our street.

It turned out she had many health problems; she was unable to work any longer and had to survive on a small pension. Just moving had driven her anxiety right up the Richter scale.

How confrontin­g it was to discover how many people in her position are probably a mere one or two pension cheques away from being homeless. She was terrified by the thought of being out on the street and the thought of moving back in with her parents was inconceiva­ble.

“I could never go back,” she shuddered, “they are my parents in name only.”

Although the house she rented was in terrible shape, she was more than happy to have a roof over her head.

Another bonus for her was the big size of her yard. Her old cat loved slinking through the long grass; it was his own private jungle. Eventually I could see her settling in. She was beginning to feel safe.

We decided on what we called our ‘date night’, every Monday we’d watch a political TV show. How enjoyable these nights turned out to be; we’d end up roaring at the guests we didn’t agree with and laughing our heads off.

We munched on veggie chips and drank hot chocolate; we felt like we could resolve all the world’s problems with utterly ridiculous solutions.

One night, she told me how she and her three siblings would throw a brick at the TV screen whenever they disliked a program. I was gobsmacked! She burst into laughter, explaining it was “just sponge rubber painted as a house brick”. In no time at all, that old cat grew to like me; he’d sit on my lap, purring in his adorable way, listening in on our crazy conversati­ons.

As our friendship grew, we began to tell each other the stories of our lives. I informed her in snippets about my unstable childhood. How we moved house so many times and even resorted to having to rent a caravan once. I guess we came pretty close to being homeless ourselves! I let her know how hard my mother worked, how hard my father partied and what a lonely childhood I’d had. All these conversati­ons were therapeuti­c; we began wondering what we could say to our younger selves if it were possible to time travel. What advice would we dish out? Together we reflected on the past and the bad decisions we’d made, realising what we should have done and wishing we had the power to change those moments.

When she told me her life story, it came all at once, unlike mine had, in instalment­s.

How easily the fire in young women can be snuffed out by society’s restraints. How easy to browbeat a kind soul into a corner; a corner they feel compelled to stay in forever.

She could recall the trip to Australia on a huge ship. Her family were immigrants, ‘Ten Pound Poms’, as they were known. All the way from jolly old England. Father was the sun, mother the moon who orbited around him, while the four children were more or less left to their own devices.

High school changed her life. She was mercilessl­y bullied, especially by the boys.

She was repeatedly told she was fat and ugly. Every day she went to school hearing that familiar chant: “Fat, ugly, you deserve to die!”

No matter how ridiculed she was, she managed to score excellent grades. Yet the hateful words were sinking in and she began to believe them.

At age 17, she worked at a small local newspaper and awkwardly tried to fit in.

There, she met a married predator who played on her insecuriti­es and charmed his way into her empty life. How fast she became another girl in the long line of damaged teenagers, effortless prey for men who target the wounded and inexperien­ced. Lost girls who had zilch confidence, who are so grateful for a handful of crumbs thrown their way. Craving the love and approval they’ve never had, not even through their deplorable childhoods.

All the attention he showered upon her was a drug, a powerful addiction. For the first time in her young life, she felt she was worthy of being loved. Unfortunat­ely, it didn’t last and the confusion she faced when he broke it off was devastatin­g. Imagine the horror, finding out her svengali was grooming an underage girl behind her back. How foolish she was to think she was his one and only.

Had he lied about his relationsh­ip with his wife? Of course he had!

Realising she had absolutely no one to turn to, the darkness set in, that familiar chant playing over in her mind: “Fat, ugly, you should kill yourself!”

It was all too much for her; wanting the taunts to end, she slashed her wrists.

Broken, but surviving nonetheles­s, she was forced to return to the family home. Her mother ordered her to stay in her room and not upset her father. There were no embraces, no kind words. It was best to sweep the sordid details beneath the rug and, for heaven’s sake, “Don’t let the neighbours know about it!”

These comments alone were enough to crush a young person’s soul. Destructiv­e self-esteem problems followed her through university, so much so, she almost quit three weeks before receiving her degree. It was a tremendous battle in her final year, but she donned that cap and gown and graduated anyway. The ups and downs of her existence paved the way for her to become an excellent carer, showering her clients with kindness, from the old and infirm to dying cancer patients.

Strange to say, she is a person I can be totally honest with. I can tell her things I wouldn’t venture to share with friends I’ve known for years. Perhaps, because she’s never judgmental, and thank god, I was taught early on never to judge a book by its cover. We’ve been through a lot together. We don’t overstep our ever-loosening boundaries, respecting each other’s take on things, even if our points of view may differ and often do.

We buried her beloved cat together. The sight of her holding his blanketed body in the back seat of my car, has never left me. Ginger was laid in a simple grave filled with fresh green grass below and above him ... the grass he loved prowling through, pretending to be the tiger he always thought he should have been.

Not too much later, she lost her father and was bewildered by her feelings. What should she feel for someone who never took the time to know her?

Such a loss is all about what could have been. Too late now, their relationsh­ip will remain broken because he’s gone and there’s no time left to mend all those breaks. Still, a loss is a loss; death stops us in our tracks and forces us to remember how very fragile life is.

Over a bottle of cheap wine, I tell her of my disastrous first marriage, the death of my child, my spiral into depression and my battle royale with anxiety. The final instalment of my life’s past. The warmth of her silence, the way she doesn’t miss one of my words, grants me permission to put those sorrows behind me, where they belong.

I know why she never married, never wanted children and retreated from the mainstream of life.

I understand why she’s made her choices, why she’s dropped the baton and given up on her dreams. I did it too, along with an army of people before and after, I am sure.

I kept trudging in the mainstream, living what I thought was my life. I’m reconsider­ing a lot of what I thought now. I treasure my friendship with this woman who’s a survivor, who’s kept as true to herself as she can.

Elle, she of the windblown hair and one-armed glasses perched atop her nose. Her uniform, black track pants, avec holes, très chic! To top it off, a red checkered men’s jumper. No fan of housework, unwashed dishes piled high to resemble a New York diorama.

If stuff drops to the floor, it usually stays there. Almost everything she owns is secondhand or bargain basement. Spiders are welcome house guests, along with the odd little mouse. A wild woman to be sure, a breath of fresh air, not bound by convention, nor tradition. She’s intelligen­t; books line her walls, words are her playthings. She can quote from the Bible to Rolling Stone, from De Profundis to Ulysses.

Her wit and depth of understand­ing is amazing. If there were more people like her in the world, what a great place it would be. If you meet a person who’s different, never be quick to judge. You may end up missing out on a quirky, amusing and priceless friend. Believe me, everyone could do with a maverick in their lives.

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